IT was P Sainath of The Hindu who first brought to light the “paid news syndrome” and exposed the large-scale prevalence of the malpractice in Maharashtra involving millions of rupees. The information came as a shock to readers who responded sharply with letters to the editor. In about ten days the paper published over twenty letters from readers. Both the Press Council of India (PCI) and the Editors Guild have woken up.
The PCI established by the union government under a 1978 Act has been demanding more power to tackle what has come to be known as the “paid news syndrome” and reportedly its fresh proposals are under the government’s consideration. In all these years of its existence the Press Council has been singularly ineffective to control the media when it deserves to be called to order. At least editors of two leading national newspapers had at different times refused to appear before the Council when summoned. The Press Council can only express an opinion; it can’t enforce it. Hopefully the UPA government will provide some teeth to the Press Council to act meaningfully in the years to come.
Information & Broadcasting Minister Ambika Soni has conceded that the Press Council has long been asking for more powers. As S Viswanathan, Readers’ Editor of The Hindu, (March 15) stated that the concern of citizens over the “shocking form of media impropriety and electoral malpractice, deeply damaging to democracy, has at last reached the corridors of power”. Actually, Ambika Soni wants the media to act “as a repository of public trust for conveying correct and true information to the people” and, if paid information was presented as news content, it could mislead the public and hamper its judgment.
More interestingly, Ambika Soni reportedly wants media barons to uphold the primacy of the editor, many of whom, in recent times, have been all but marginalised. It is a dangerous development when editors have to take orders from the circulation manager, under whatever designation. The Editors Guild of India, too, has in recent times condemned the unethical practice of paid news and called upon all editors to desist from publishing any form of advertisement that masquerades as news. The Editors Guild has reportedly formed an Ethics Committee, but how far it will be effective remains to be seen.
A delegation of the Guild reportedly met Chief Election Commissioner Navin Chawla and urged him to take strong action against election candidates as well as media persons who violated the disclosure norms of election expenditure on media publicity. But that is barely scratching media’s surface. According to reports, the Guild president, Shri Rajdeep Sardesai made a strong case for dedicating the year 2010 for a campaign against paid news and warned the Commission that the dangerous trend threatened the foundation of journalism by eroding public faith in the credibility and impartiality of news reporting. It also vitiated the poll process and prevented a fair election, since richer candidates had a clear advantage.
Surprisingly, it seems, Shri Chawla pointed out that the Election Commission did not have the mechanism to monitor elections in all the constituencies and only some random samples could be examined closely. That is no excuse. The Election Commission must have an entire department to monitor the media, both print and electronic and keep an eye and an ear on what is published and what is spoken. If finances is a problem, the Government of India must come to the help of the Commission. Importantly, media persons themselves must keep the Commission informed of foul practices. It is not that they should spy on their own employers, but surely when something appears in the media that seems suspiciously like paid news, someone could draw the Commission’s attention to it? As The Hindu’s Readers Editor, S Viswanathan recently (March 15) noted: “Organisations representing working journalists have been in the forefront in taking up corrective action.”
Thus, the Press Academy of Andhra Pradesh and the Andhra Pradesh Union of Working Journalists, based in Hyderabad, brought to light “the cash transfer scheme” that was widely in operation during the May 2009 Lok Sabha elections. It would seem that led by veteran journalists Kuldip Nayyar, Ajit Bhattacharjee and Harivansh, the functionaries of the two organisations met the chairman of the Press Council of India, Justice GN Ray to seek his intervention. As Shri Viswanathan rightly put it: “A lasting solution lies in a combination of strict, transparent in-house preventive steps and firm action under the law of the land by the Press Council and the Election Commission.”
Incidentally, it must be mandatory for all newspapers and electronic media to publicise the decisions taken by the Press Council on various issues pertaining to media which have been charged with wrong-doing. To the best of one’s knowledge, no newspaper has ever published the names of newspapers found guilty of wrong-doing, on the theory that dog does not eat dog and it is not fair for anyone paper to publicise the name of a newspaper or an editor found guilty of wrong practices.
Indeed, there may be occasions when an editor may praise a candidate wholeheartedly and in utter sincerity in the genuine belief that a candidate deserves support, without a penny changing hands. Or a newspaper baron, who has reason to be thankful to a candidate, may genuinely give him plenty of space in his paper in perfect good faith. Hasn’t he the right to do so? Can he be penalised? These are issues that must be gone into in good faith.
Recently, the marriage of a young Rahul Mahajan received extraordinary coverage in many papers, something very unusual. One can understand such coverage being given to a marriage of such a celebrity as Rahul Gandhi and one begins to wonder what is all that brouhaha about.
The March edition of Aseemaa carried an article quoting a leading Mumbai English tabloid damning a leading Mumbai English paper for publishing the “rates” for purchasing editorial features in its pages. Said Aseemaa: “The rogue rate card seems to be the latest indicator of rotting media ethics and tolerance in India for corruption.” It would seem that for sums ranging from $ 45,000 to 66,000 one could buy a news feature, get interviewed and have a picture published on Page 3.
There has been no public condemnation of this and the paper named has issued no denial, because it couldn’t care less. That is today’s journalism, take it or leave it. Says Aseemaa: “In the United States or UK, uproar would have erupted after the expose.” But this is India.